US Drug Overdose Deaths Hit a Record High, CDC Reports

Megan Brooks

December 18, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is warning of an increase in drug overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the 12 months ending in May 2020, roughly 81,230 people died of a drug overdose in the United States.

"This represents a worsening of the drug overdose epidemic in the United States and is the largest number of drug overdoses for a 12-month period ever recorded," the CDC says in a health advisory.

The agency notes that although drug overdose deaths had been increasing in the months preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic.

"The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard," CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, said in a statement.

"As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it's important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences," Redfield said.

Synthetic opioids ― primarily illicitly manufactured fentanyl ― appear to be the primary driver of the increases in overdose deaths, increasing 38.4% from the 12-month period leading up to June 2019 compared with the 12-month period leading up to May 2020.

Expanded Prevention, Response Strategies Needed

Of 38 jurisdictions for which synthetic opioid data are available, 37 reported increases in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids for this period; 18 reported increases topping 50%; and 10 western states reported an increase of 98% in synthetic opioid–involved deaths.

Overdose deaths involving cocaine have also increased, by 26.5% from the 12-months ending in June 2019 to the 12 months ending in May 2020. These deaths likely involve co-use or contamination of cocaine with illicitly manufactured fentanyl or heroin, the CDC reports.

Provisional data also suggest a 34.8% increase in overdose deaths involving psychostimulants, such as methamphetamine. The number of deaths involving psychostimulants now exceeds the number of cocaine-involved deaths, the CDC says.

The increase in overdose deaths highlights the need for essential services to remain available for people at risk for drug overdose and the need to expand prevention and response activities.

The CDC recommends expanding distribution and use of naloxone and overdose prevention education as appropriate based on local needs; increasing awareness and availability of treatment for substance use disorders; early intervention for individuals at highest risk for overdose; and improved detection of overdose outbreaks to facilitate more effective response.

"The increase in overdose deaths is concerning," Deb Houry, MD, MPH, director of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, said in the news release.

"CDC's Injury Center continues to help and support communities responding to the evolving overdose crisis. Our priority is to do everything we can to equip people on the ground to save lives in their communities," Houry added.

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